Court Baron Records and the Enclosure of Austwick

Michael Pearson
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 


The civil parish of Austwick covers an area of more than 8000 acres. It is about 13 km from Austwick Common in the south to Lord’s Seat on Simon Fell in the north and extends 3.5 km east from Thwaite Scars in the west. From 130m the ground rises to a height of 630m. The landscape is so characteristic of the Yorkshire Dales, with the dry stone walls enclosing fields of irregular shape and size among the lower land around the village. In the upland areas the fields become more regular in shape and larger in area. The Tithe map of 1847 [1] shows the pattern of fields and associated walls which has remained essentially unchanged for the last 160 years or so.

Within the landscape there is also evidence of lynchets: the level terraces formed from the low undulating ground surrounding the village. This is evidence of the open-field system of agriculture practiced since at least medieval times. Each manor or village had two or three large fields which were divided into numerous narrow strips of land. Tenants would cultivate a number of strips which would be scattered around the fields. Each year one field would be left fallow to restore fertility. Elsewhere, on lower ground, land would be devoted to meadow and the production of hay. On higher ground there would be permanent pasture with common grazing. Though this is a general outline of agriculture, the system was not static. For example, to increase arable production the three-field system could be introduced whereby proportionately less land was left fallow each year. Alternatively, the area of pasture could be increased by allowing parts of the open fields to revert to grass. Thus a village could respond to population changes as well as the economics of arable/livestock production.

Another method of increasing production was to bring into cultivation more peripheral areas. The area near a farmstead, known as the infield could be continuously cultivated using a three- or four-fold rotation. With no fallow period the fertility of the fields could be maintained by manuring. The remaining land, the outfield, could either be used as pasture or parts ploughed for five or so successive years before being left to revert to grassland.

There were a number of disadvantages to the open field system of agriculture and there was a trend to enclose the land, whether it was used for livestock or arable farming. This was well underway by 1500 and by the start of the eighteenth century the majority of land in England had been divided into distinct fields with hedges, fences or walls as boundaries [Williamson, 2002]. Enclosure could be achieved in a piecemeal fashion involving a series of private agreements between landowners. The field strips could be amalgamated, through purchase or exchange, to form areas which could be fenced. This could be a slow process and would ultimately depend on the willingness of the owner of the neighbouring strip to sell or exchange the land. In contrast, the community or at least the major landowners could act together and, through an act of parliament, enclose all the remaining open land in the township. Open field strips could be re-allocated in consolidated holdings and areas of common grazing could be divided up in proportion to the rights which tenants had exercised over them. The General Enclosure Act of 1836 required the agreement of those who held most of the land (three quarters of the value) rather than the majority of the landowners.

Documentary Evidence

The earliest evidence for enclosure in Austwick dates from 1510 when Henry, Marquis of Dorset, complained that a group of men had entered a pasture called Austwick waste and broken down the hedges and ditches. Moreover, it was claimed that their animals had eaten the grass and destroyed the enclosed pasture [2]. It was alleged that the rioters were led by a William Clapham Esquire and were armed with ‘bowes, arrows, bills, great staves, swords and other weapons of war’. Although the outcome of this dispute is not known it is clear that the process of enclosure was underway by the start of the sixteenth century.

Three hundred years later an enclosure act was awarded to James Farrer, Charles Ingleby, William King and John Foster [3]. Over two thousand acres were enclosed on Ingleborough, Studrigg, Swarth Moor and Oxenber. It had been argued that ‘the said commons and waste grounds were not in their then situation capable of improvement’ and ‘the same being overstocked with cattle for want of a regular stint and by cattle trespassing thereon from other townships adjoining’. This appears to have been the final stage of enclosure within Austwick. There was no further act of parliament so it can be assumed that the rest of the parish had been enclosed in a piecemeal fashion, sometime between 1510 and 1841.

The Register of Papists’ Lands of 1717 [4] provides details of all the land, both copyhold and freehold, owned by Sir Charles Ingleby of Austwick Hall. There were five farms listed as well as numerous smaller parcels of land. Of particular interest is the record of his copyhold title to ‘8 acres of Slaindall Close and in the townfield adjoining 12 acres’. His freehold property included ‘a messuage called Battlehill with about 5 acres of freehold land in the common fields there in small pieces intermixed with other men’s lands.’ This is clear evidence that the open field system persisted at the start of the eighteenth century although other land had also been enclosed. In order to explore this further it is necessary to turn to another source of documentary evidence: the Court Baron records.

Court Baron Records

In England the manorial court was the lowest court of law and its powers extended only to those living in the manor or who held land there. It dealt solely with matters over which the lord of the manor had jurisdiction. One of the three distinct manorial courts was the court baron. Its functions included recording copyhold land transactions and the resolution of disputes over property rights, damage, debts and other cases between tenants.

In the case of Austwick three court baron records have survived. The first dates from November 1681 and continues to June 1699 [5]. The second appears to be a nineteenth- century transcription and covers the period from October 1693 to December 1783 [6]. The final manuscript runs from 1787 to 1839 [6]. Thus there is an overlap in the dates covered by the first two documents. There is a short gap between the second and the third. Even so there are records covering nearly 150 years.

The court baron documents record the names of the lord of the manor, the steward (who represented the lord) and the jurors. Also recorded are changes in land tenancy, sometimes naming the fields, with the names of the new and former tenants, and the annual rental with the associated fines. The principal business of the court was the record of land transactions. This often tedious record becomes more interesting where there are disputes between tenants and there are also occasional cases between the lord of the manor and his tenants.

The land within the manor was divided between demesne land, which was farmed by the lord of the manor, and tenant land. The latter was granted to freeholders and copyholders. The copyhold land was held ‘by copy of the court roll’ and developed with security akin to freehold in that the tenant could sell the land freely. However, the copyholder not only paid an annual rent but also an entry fine on the change of a tenant, as well as a further fine on the death of the lord of the manor. Finally there was a fine, called the town term, which was payable every seven years. In summary, the court baron solely recorded the transfer of copyhold land and not changes in freehold land. Any person could hold both freehold and copyhold land and then lease this to a subtenant (without the associated fines) for an annual rent which was not determined or recorded by the court. The situation is further complicated by a range of copyhold rents: the ancient, Darcy, new and 12 or 13d per Noble improvement rents. The origin of these different rents is unclear.

Even though the court baron records are not comprehensive they provide a source for investigating the piecemeal enclosure of Austwick. There are a number of different approaches:

(1) The first approach is to look at the number of transactions as well as the value of the annual rentals for these transfers. Figure 1 shows that there were over 180 land transfers recorded in the court baron documents for the first decade of the eighteenth century. This dropped significantly, by a third, in the following decade and then showed small fluctuations until 1760-9. This was followed by a further fall, to about 80 transactions per decade from 1770 to 1839. One possible interpretation is that with piecemeal enclosure there were initially many land sales involving small areas in the open fields. As time progressed the land sales were of larger areas and so the rate of consolidation was lower. It might suggest that some of the enclosure had been completed by 1709 but that the process continued to the 1760s.

Figure 2 shows the value of the annual rental per transaction for each decade from 1700 to 1839. This was the customary rental rather than the actual leasehold amount. The customary rental was that paid by the tenant to the lord of the manor. The rate was fixed and presumably depended on the area and quality of the land. It was not subject to inflation. The chart shows that initially it was small parcels of land being exchanged with 2s or so being paid from 1700-9. This average rises to over 6s by 1830-9 with oscillations in the intervening years. Again this would suggest that the parcels of land being exchanged were small and that as they were amalgamated the parcels increased in size and rental value. Of course this does not tell us which parts of Austwick were enclosed nor when.

(2) The earliest reference in the court baron to enclosure is in a dispute of 1681. ‘Pain by William Johnson that no person nor persons shall put in any loose goods in Orcaber moss or orcaber hill from and after 22 April next until Michaellmas following unless every owner or occupier inclose their own ground and make good fence about the same and so to continue from time to time upon pain of every offence to be fined 6s 8d’. It is interesting that the reference is to fencing rather than stone walls as a means of enclosure. The majority of disputes throughout the period appear to relate to fences and there are no mentions of walls.

These early records show that the enclosure process was well underway by the 1680s. But there were still areas that were not enclosed and there are numerous entries of small areas of land. For example, in 1685 two parcels of arable land in the Flass were sold with a total area of 3 roods or three quarters of an acre. There are also records of common land. For example in 1698 there was an entry for ‘common lying on Rocubank and the out common to the height of Bolland Knots’. In 1745 a parcel of land ‘on Razors betwixt lands of John Johnson and Robert Banks’ was sold and recorded in the court proceedings.

From the mid-eighteenth century onwards there continue to be references to parcels of land but increasingly there were entries for inclosures. Unfortunately from about 1809 to 1833 the general phrase ‘closes, inclosures or parcels of Ground’ appear in the records so that it impossible to ascertain whether a particular transaction was for a piece of land that had been enclosed or not. There was an exception to this in 1830 when ‘a dale piece of land or ground in a certain common field called Thackaber Ley’ was recorded. Thus even as late as this there were still areas under multiple ownership. Another example of this survived until the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1913 Austwick Moss was still subdivided into some thirty dales or numbered strips and presumably still used for cutting peat [Pearson, 2014].

(3) Another approach is to focus on the references to open fields and commons. There are seven areas recorded in the court baron proceedings and the Register of Papists’ Lands as ‘open or towne fields’. These are: forelands, wescoe, birkrigg, thackaber, croucklands, battle hill and land adjacent to slaindale. With the aid of the tithe schedule of 1851 it is possible to identify these fields. Figure 3 shows their locations. It is clear that all are close to the village of Austwick and are within the boundaries of the strip lynchet field system. However, the fields are just fragments or relicts of the original field system. It is probable that the enclosure of the arable and meadow areas had started before 1689, the date of the croucklands entry, and that that the court baron recorded their further diminution. Corroboration is provided by entries of 1822 for ‘closes or inclosures of land called Rains and Low-big Bank’ and ‘close or inclosure called High Big Bank’. All of these are within the strip lynchet field system.

Searching the court baron documents provides details of the last dates when some of these fields were still open. Thackaber was still an open field in 1830, forelands in 1781, wescoe in 1766 and birkrigg in 1762. For the other three areas there were no references to them after the initial entries.

There were just four records of commons in the court baron: rockubank, leafy green, dovenanter and bolland knots. All these are to the south of the parish. In the case of dovenanter the records date from 1708 and 1739. By 1841 the tithe map shows that the area had been enclosed. None of the other three names appears in the tithe schedules which suggests that they had remained common land which had not been enclosed. Entries in the court baron for Rocubank date from 1693 with the final record of 1808 being ‘parcel of Moss or rough Ground, lying upon the Inn Common, there called Recubank containing by estimation nine acres customary measure (but which nine acres is now inclosed)’ It seems likely that the area on the current OS map named ‘Reca Bank Moss’ is the same area of common land. Leva Green and Bolland Knots remain common land which is not enclosed.


From the analysis of the court baron records, as well as other documentary evidence, it is clear that the enclosure of land in Austwick was a complex process. It had begun by the sixteenth century and proceeded in a piecemeal fashion. Essentially it was completed with the Enclosure Award of 1814 which resulted in about a quarter of the parish being divided amongst its tenants. Further piecemeal enclosure continued for another 30 years but this was of a very limited extent.

By its very nature piecemeal enclosure is difficult to trace from documentary evidence. Few indentures or deeds have survived. However, the court baron records show that fragments of the open field system persisted through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To some extent the pace of enclosure must have depended on a number of factors. To start with, it would have depended on the availability of land for purchase or exchange. There was little you could do as a landowner if your neighbours were unwilling to sell their land. Similarly the economic climate would have affected farmers’ abilities to pay for additional land and the associated costs of enclosure. There is also evidence that there were others, such as Sir Charles Ingleby, the Reverend John Clapham and Thomas Redmayne, who had acquired wealth from non-farming activities and were investing their money in buying land and building estates.

Arthur Young, in his A six months’ tour through the north of England, wrote in 1771: ‘From Askrig to Reeth, the country is mountainous, and full of lead mines; the vales are all grass inclosures, rich, and let very high.’ Yet in lower Swaledale the open field system survived at Richmond until at least 1766 [Fleming, 2010]. The evidence for Austwick fits this picture of parishes proceeding with enclosure at their own rate.

There is one aspect of the enclosure process which appears to have received little attention: that is the use of materials for erecting the boundaries and barriers. In the court baron records only the term ‘fence’ was used. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the original meaning of ‘fence’ was a barrier which could be a hedge, a wall, railings or even a ditch. This meaning persisted until at least 1804, when Robert Forsyth described the different forms of fence in his book on the principles of agriculture. With limited woodland within the parish it seems unlikely that the fences were constructed of wood unless it was brought in from elsewhere [Pearson, 2014]. Even so it is possible that some or all of the initial enclosures were made of wooden railings or hedges instead of stone. Perhaps documentary evidence for this exists somewhere.

Alternatively the fences may have been built with stone. Although surface clearance of stone would have provided some of the material for walling it is probable that the rest was quarried locally. Perhaps documentary evidence for this exists for Austwick. In his Farmer’s Kalendar of 1778, Arthur Young wrote: ‘In the dry stone countries, walls are the common fence, and when well made are impenetrable, and extremely durable. This [November] is the proper season to begin building them: they are made of whatever stone is plentiful ... If the stones are very unequal in size, and not easily cut, it will be necessary to build the walls wider at bottom than that at top, gradually diminishing’.

The description of the enclosure of the landscape of Austwick has been based solely on documentary evidence. As ever, such evidence is not comprehensive: there are gaps and in the end the court baron is a record of land transfers rather than enclosure per se. What of the field walls themselves? A survey of the stone walls may provide further clues to the enclosure process. Tom Lord has demonstrated that stone walls are not uniformly constructed and that some may pre-date the enclosure process [Lord, 2004]. There is evidence of walls of medieval construction between Thwaite Lane and Norber but there may be other sections elsewhere in the parish. Only a thorough survey of our walls will provide further evidence of the enclosure process in Austwick.


  • Fleming, A., 2010. Swaledale:valley of the wild river. Oxford: Windgather Press.
  • Forsyth, R., 1804. Principles and practice of agriculture. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable.
  • Lord, T.C., 2004. One on two, and two on one: preliminary results from a survey of dry stone walls on the National Trust Estate at Malham. In White R & Wilson P, Archaeology and historic landscapes in the Yorkshire Dales. YAS Occasional paper No.2 : 173 - 286.
  • Pearson, M. B., 2014. Woodland in the Yorkshire Dales: a case study. The Naturalist 139: 23 - 30.
  • Williamson, T., 2002. The transformation of rural England. Farming and the landscape 1700 - 1870. University of Exeter Press.
  • Young, A., 1771. A six month's tour through the north of England. London: Strahan.
  • Young, A., 1778. Farmer's Kalendar by an experienced farmer. London: Robinson.

Archive Sources

  • [1] North Yorks. County Record Office. PR/CPM/5/2 , MIC 1771/335-364
  • [2] Yorkshire Archaeological Society J. vol. XLV p.84
  • [3] North Yorks. County Record Office. MIC 0603,0604
  • [4] West Yorks. Archive Service. QE28
  • [5] Yorkshire Archaeological Society. DD91
  • [6] North Yorks.County Record Office. Z1080, MIC 4328. Transcription available from North Craven Historical Research Group


Professor Richard Hoyle drew my attention to the Register of Papists’ Lands and details of Sir Charles Ingleby’s holdings. Sheila Gordon transcribed the third of the court baron records for Austwick.

(Eds.: The North Craven Heritage Trust has a set of photocopies of the Austwick Court Baron records in its archive).

Figure 1 - No of Transactions
Figure 2 - Man Transaction Price(s)
Figure 3 - Map of Open Fields

Figure 1 - No of Transactions

Figure 2 - Man Transaction Price(s)

Figure 3 - Map of Open Fields